With the creature count nearing four digits, the pressure had to be vented somewhere.
Nintendo’s E3 Direct and subsequent Treehouse footage was supposed to delight and excite Pokémon fans as they looked forward to November’s release of Sword and Shield, the eighth generation entry in the catch ‘em all franchise. But that tagline, “Gotta catch ‘em all”, helped ignite a furor when Gamefreak announced the National Dex would not be returning. Fans were, in short, irate.
They began bombarding the official Nintendo Twitter account with calls to boycott the game, threats to refund pre-orders, and cries to rally around the #bringbacknationaldex hashtag. Nintendo’s YouTube videos containing E3 footage of anything Pokémon related received a flood of downvotes and negative comments. Worst among the immediate, er, “feedback” was repeated attacks on developers, who were called “lazy” for not including the feature.
The National Dex has long been part of Pokémon’s endgame content. New entries restricted the available roster of Pokémon that trainers could catch, allowing Gamefreak to tailor the experience and balance progression. After players reached the pinnacle of battle prowess, often by beating the Elite Four and being crowned champion, the National Dex was unlocked. This filled the world with new breeds of pocket monsters, giving players reason to explore anew. More importantly, for some, it also allowed beloved companions from old games to finally transfer over.
Losing that capability is understandably upsetting. Developing emotional attachments to the creatures on your team is something Gamefreak has tweaked and refined over the years. At the same time, the series has a fraught history with allowing players to transfer those partners as technology advances. For many, this latest decision seems like another immutable break that will leave friends on the wrong side of a digital divide.
While it remains to be seen if Gamefreak will provide an eventual solution to the National Dex problem, it benefits conversations to know a bit more about the hows and whys of design decisions. Enter Dan Floyd, a digital artist, game developer and YouTuber who runs the channel New Frame Plus. A month ago, Dan published a video titled “How Has Pokémon’s Battle Animation Evolved?” wherein he provided an annotated tour through the series’ history of changes.
Interesting in its own right, Dan’s video reframes the decision not to include the National Dex as an inevitable event, and perhaps even an immediately necessary one.
”If you put a 3D Pokémon in front of us, we are going to expect to see that Pokémon move like an actual, living creature,” Dan said in the video. “That’s 720 Pokémon needing full suites of animation. With this many Pokémon on the roster, every single animation addition is going to have enormous production consequences.”
The 2013 jump to 3D, as Dan described, marked a major new era for Pokémon games. Gamefreak invested heavily in an increased staff as they created a library of robust animation for every existing Pokémon.
“Each of these games would bring a new round of minor adjustments to the fidelity and shading style on the Pokémons digital models,” Dan said. “But if you look at their animations, you might notice that a lot of them are looking pretty familiar. And that is because they are largely unchanged.”
By frontloading work on the X&Y games, future games likely benefited from resources (read: work hours and employee energy) being invested in bringing to life the world outside of battles. Character customization, NPC interactions and the design of the world has seen marked improvement throughout recent entries thanks to reuse of that library of animations created in 2013.
But that solution couldn’t last forever. Eventually, technology would improve to a point where the 2013 animations would feel a little dusty. In an interview with USG, longtime producer Junichi Masuda said the move to Switch allowed the team to focus on “much higher fidelity with higher quality animations.” The time to reevaluate their work investment felt right.
“I suspect we are seeing them pivot to a new long-term franchise production strategy here,” Dan said in an email to Autosave. “Until now, every new Pokémon game’s production has been weighed down by the sheer size of the National Dex. You always want to make each new game feel exciting and new, but figuring out ways to iterate and expand upon your animation systems becomes a nightmare when every single addition or change requires 800+ new animations.”
The choice not to add the National Dex to Sword and Shield was likely made to balance the time needed to complete new and experimental features, like the teased Dynamax and open world. It shouldn’t be discounted that, as Dan puts it, “the Pokémon series is a cascading scope explosion”, and every new entry raises the bar for animators a bit higher. Eventually, something had to give.
“I think this change was an inevitability,” Dan said. “At a certain point, you have to decrease scope on one of those axes; either you stop adding new pokémon/features/animations (which makes it harder to get people excited about a new game), or you don’t ever update old animations (which slowly makes your games feel more dated and stale), or you just stop putting every single Pokémon in every single game.”
For his money, Dan said the choice to cut the National Dex was likely the right one. He does sympathize with those players who won’t be able to bring their treasured partners along for adventures in the Galar region. But his advice is to reframe Gamefreak’s decision as safeguarding their ability to be creative in future entries. It would be a surprise to him if the National Dex didn’t return in the franchise’s near future.
As discussions continue over changes to features, remember that no design choices are arbitrarily made. Dan’s video is a reminder that studios learn from their past and are constantly evaluating how their decisions will shape a game’s future.